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‘They’re Fighting Blind.’ Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism

15 minute read

Just days after President Joe Biden was sworn in to office, his national-security team urgently reached out to the Anti-Defamation League for help.

The new Commander in Chief was launching a government-wide effort to combat far-right extremism and wanted to hear from the nonprofit, which for 108 years has tracked anti-Semitism, hate speech and domestic radicalism. “We expected to be contacted,” says Ryan Greer, a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who studies extremism at the ADL. “We just didn’t expect it that quickly. The change in tone and urgency could not be more stark from prior years.”

In normal times, the top security aides in a new Administration would be focusing on dire foreign threats like transnational terrorism, Chinese cyberespionage or North Korean nuclear proliferation. This time, the gravest danger is closer to home. Spurred by the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, Biden has asked senior advisers to do something no previous Administration has attempted: refocus the network of U.S. security agencies to help combat domestic extremism.

Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, is working with the FBI and DHS to assess the threat. A new four-person office at the National Security Council (NSC) has launched a 100-day push to better understand and tackle the problem. The office is seeking crime data and information on recruitment strategies, and convening weekly video meetings with former federal officials, scholars and advocacy groups. There’s talk of expanding FBI field offices and boosting funding for programs that rehabilitate former violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

The urgency was clear long before the Capitol insurrection. For three decades, the U.S. has suffered escalating violence at the hands of far-right extremists, from Oklahoma City to Charlottesville to El Paso. Since 9/11, right-wing terrorists have been responsible for almost three times as many attacks on American soil as Islamist terrorists, including all but one of the 17 domestic-terror attacks launched in 2019.

Meanwhile, it’s easier than ever for extremists to recruit. Social media has put millions of Americans a click away from radical views and unhinged conspiracies once circulated by pamphlet. On Facebook and YouTube, clean-cut figures wearing suits and ties have built large followings by weaving racist, anti-Semitic and violent rhetoric into political speech. President Donald Trump’s embrace of his far-right supporters melded extremist militants with the Republican Party he commands; the Capitol riot blurred the barriers that once separated run-of-the-mill conservatives from self-styled militia groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.

“This new phenomenon that’s emerged is particularly dangerous: soccer moms and Joe Blow citizens showing up at the same rally and participating in the same activities as hardcore white-supremacist groups and militia extremists,” says Daryl Johnson, a former DHS senior analyst who authored a 2009 report warning of the rise of right-wing extremism. “You’ve got the criminal, violent element blending in with the law-abiding element under the guise of the First Amendment.”

By January, nearly 4 in 10 Republicans said violence may be necessary “if elected leaders will not protect America,” according to a survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Threats against politicians and local officials have grown commonplace. And analysts who have spent decades studying the far-right fringe warn its ranks are set to swell further under the Biden Administration.

It’s a daunting task for Biden’s team: confront one of the greatest domestic threats since the Civil War without provoking a political crisis or infringing on Americans’ civil liberties. Officials are armed with little data, less money, few programs to build on and no proven solutions. Federal law enforcement is limited by freedom-of-speech protections for U.S. citizens. Local police departments are often ill-equipped or unwilling to determine whether perpetrators are part of a larger far-right organization. But Biden’s 100-day scramble to understand the scope of the problem suggests how far it has spread.

Perhaps most challenging of all is that fighting these extremist groups may strengthen them. Any crackdown on the far right risks reinforcing their narrative that the government is persecuting or silencing them for political reasons, which experts warn will further boost their numbers. Hours after Biden promised at his Inauguration to tackle “political extremism, white supremacy [and] domestic terrorism,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson warned his audience, “We are now in a new war on terror, but it’s a domestic war focused inward on the people of this country.” Pro-Trump forums lit up with furious messages. “If they start using bullsh-t legislation to target their political opposition,” one user wrote, “it should get violent.”

In this context, it’s no surprise that Biden picked an Attorney General, Merrick Garland, who led the Justice Department’s prosecution of the perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in U.S. history. Garland vowed to make the prosecution of the Capitol mob his “first priority.” FBI agents and prosecutors have tracked down and charged some 300 of the rioters. “Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on March 2. He noted that the FBI is currently working on about 2,000 domestic-terrorism cases, twice as many as it was in September.

But if the U.S. has learned any lesson from 30 years of failed attempts to stem the rise of domestic extremism, it’s that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. The Biden Administration’s success will be measured not by the number of prosecutions of domestic terrorists but rather by the number prevented from crossing over into violence in the first place.

Biden, in the Oval Office on Jan. 28, has made cracking down on domestic extremism a top priority
Biden, in the Oval Office on Jan. 28, has made cracking down on domestic extremism a top priorityDoug Mills—The New York Times/Redux

As Christian Picciolini watched the mob storming the Capitol from his home in Chicago, he had one overriding thought: They’re winning. Everything about the crowd–the chants, the anger, the symbols on their clothing–evoked the white-power movement Picciolini had left behind more than two decades earlier.

This, he recalls, had been their plan all along: to break out of back-alley meetings and blend in to the places where Americans live, work, discuss politics and consume news. The ragged crowd of jackbooted skinheads Picciolini escaped in the 1990s had merged into a throng that included college students, suburban “Women for Trump,” wealthy professionals, middle-class retirees and conspiracy theorists, united by a stolen-election fantasy stoked by conservative media.

“I was horrified, because it showed how effective these groups have been over that time that we’ve ignored them,” says Picciolini, 47, a former neo-Nazi who now helps others leave the movement. “And I’m angry, because so many of us saw it coming for many, many years, and nobody listened.”

Picciolini’s radicalization came during a previous peak of antigovernment fervor. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a 4,800-lb. bomb concealed in a Ryder truck parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The killing of 168 Americans, including 19 children, forced the feds to acknowledge the homegrown threat. McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, sought revenge against the U.S. government for the deadly sieges by federal agents in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. He drew motivation for the attack from The Turner Diaries, the 1978 race-war novel that has inspired generations of white supremacists.

Today the threat emanates from a tangled web of ideologies, including white supremacists, neo-Nazis, antigovernment militias and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory that posits the U.S. is controlled by Satanist pedophiles. Notions once consigned to the lunatic fringe have moved into the mainstream as right-wing news networks, politicians and interest groups, while embracing a them-or-us posture against “liberal elites,” increasingly endorse white-nationalist narratives.

Few law-enforcement officials are more familiar with extremist propaganda than former FBI agent Michael German, who spent much of his career undercover, including infiltrating far-right groups. In 1992, as a young agent working on savings- and-loan scams in the bureau’s Los Angeles field office, German was walking the halls when a colleague turned to him and said, “Hey, you have blond hair and blue eyes. You can be a Nazi.” German went with it, growing his hair long and befriending a circle of neo-Nazis incensed by riots and looting in the aftermath of the police beating of Rodney King. He spent 14 months on the case, which led to the arrest of eight suspects who had amassed explosives and automatic weapons with plans to bomb the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and shoot members of the congregation. “That was in the 1990s, and there was no shortage of laws to address criminal terrorists,” he says. “So what’s happened since then?”

9/11, for one. After the attacks, the U.S. government turned its full strength to building a globe-spanning intelligence network capable of stopping foreign terrorist attacks before they occurred. Agents were granted sweeping authorities by Congress to surveil and investigate any terror suspects with even tenuous links to foreign organizations. Meanwhile, the homegrown threat grew. The number of right-wing extremist groups jumped more than 250% in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In an internal 2009 report, DHS analysts warned that the election of the first Black President, combined with the economic downturn, “could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists.” After it leaked, a backlash from conservatives–who objected to the term right-wing extremism–led DHS leaders to retract the document. That blowback, former DHS analysts say, offers a preview of the political challenge facing Biden.

Trump’s election was a watershed for extremist groups, who until his 2016 campaign had been disavowed in no uncertain terms by national candidates. As President, Trump retweeted fringe followers and infamously called those gathered at a 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville “very fine people.” Before the 2020 election, he asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate, raising their profile and generating a rallying cry on the right.

At the same time, the Trump Administration dismantled many of the government’s already limited tools to counter such groups. The DHS office that focused on domestic extremism was disbanded. Dozens of grants meant to go to programs that counter extremist ideologies at the grassroots level were pulled, including a $400,000 grant to the only one focused on rehabilitating right-wing radicals, Life After Hate, co-founded by Picciolini.

The combination of Trump’s sympathetic rhetoric and federal neglect had clear consequences. In Michigan, COVID-19 lockdown measures drove up membership in antigovernment militia groups. Last April, armed protesters tried to force their way into the legislative chambers of the state capitol in Lansing. The Proud Boys became a fixture at demonstrations across the state, wearing their distinctive black polos with yellow stripes as they provided “security” at local GOP events. In October, the FBI foiled a plot by more than a dozen men with ties to right-wing militias, like the Wolverine Watchmen, to kidnap and kill the state’s Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

These groups “were sort of weaving themselves into local GOP activity,” says U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat whose district includes Lansing. “It’s normalized in a way that I don’t think people realized until recently.” A former CIA and Pentagon official, Slotkin felt a sense of foreboding as she and her husband walked to the Capitol on the morning of Jan. 6, passing demonstrators gathering to protest the certification of the 2020 election. Anticipating violence, she directed her staff not to come in to work that day. “We recognized lots of different groups that we had seen in my own community. It felt very familiar,” says Slotkin, who plans to focus on domestic extremism as chairwoman of the House Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee. “We had seen this movie before.”

Members of the Boogaloo movement gather outside the Michigan state capitol in Lansing on Jan. 17
Members of the Boogaloo movement gather outside the Michigan state capitol in Lansing on Jan. 17Bryan Denton—The New York Times/Redux

Law enforcement has plenty of tools to investigate and prosecute violent domestic extremism. Yet it often chooses not to use them, former national-security officials say. When someone spray-paints a swastika on a synagogue, local cops are more likely to classify the crime as vandalism than to probe whether the perpetrator has ties to hate groups. Only 14% of nearly 15,600 state and local police agencies involved in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program even report hate crimes. Most of them report zero. Without accurate data cataloging the threat, it’s impossible to allocate resources to fight it. “Right now, they’re fighting blind,” says German, “if they’re even fighting at all.”

State and local law enforcement are often ill-equipped or unwilling to respond to extremist crimes in ways that generate leads and investigations. (Nor does DOJ evaluate whether hate-crime perpetrators are part of a larger domestic extremist group when it defers an investigation to local law enforcement. And in 2019, the FBI said 80% of its counterterrorism agents in the field were assigned to international terrorism cases, while just 20% worked on domestic ones.)

Even when local officials flag a possible far-right plot, the feds rarely make the case. In 2019, Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, released a study showing that hate-crime cases were referred to federal authorities for prosecution almost 2,000 times over the past decade. Only 15% of those referrals led to prosecutions.

Faced with this dilemma, many in Congress have renewed calls for new legislation to formally criminalize domestic terrorism, a move Biden supported during his campaign. But civil-liberties advocates reject the idea, fearing that more power for a broken system would only make matters worse. In a Jan. 19 letter to Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union and 150 other groups warned a domestic-counterterrorism law could undermine Americans’ First Amendment rights and be used to target people of color and other marginalized communities.

At DHS, officials are expanding programs that focus on keeping those who flirt with extremist views from joining militant groups or committing violent acts. Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the task will be to “identify where the line between hateful rhetoric and hateful action takes place, to be well ahead of the action before it occurs and to stop it.” The agency announced it will provide at least $77 million in federal grants to state and local governments to combat domestic violent extremism, including training beat officers to spot the signs of far-right violence early on.

Mayorkas has acknowledged that these programs will have to focus on fighting extremists’ recruitment on social media platforms. But any efforts to change hearts and minds will be controversial. Hate speech is in most cases protected speech, and the U.S. government is legally barred from countering homegrown extremism the way it does foreign terrorist propaganda. Already the prosecutions of the Capitol rioters are raising questions about the rights to free speech, assembly and privacy for American citizens. Leaders in law enforcement and the U.S. military are split on how to deal with extremists in their own ranks. Underlying all these efforts is a question that became harder to answer during the Trump era: Who is a potentially violent domestic extremist, and who only speaks like one?

Still, some on the left are calling for immediate action. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, has urged Biden to issue an Executive Order that would identify white supremacy and domestic violent extremism as a threat to national security and screen service members’ social media accounts for ties to radical movements. Others point to Canada’s recent designation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization and argue for stronger measures at home. “Our best chance for success is to be straight with the American people–that the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the immediate post-9/11 environment, and these threats are not going away,” Christopher Rodriguez, director of Washington’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, told Congress on Feb. 4.

The makeup of the mob that stormed the Capitol may be the biggest problem. Though Congress has focused on militias and white-supremacist groups, those factions represented few of the participants. A George Washington University study identified 257 people involved in the riot, of whom just a small fraction were found to be part of a militant network. The vast majority were ordinary Americans–members of church groups, families who traveled together, and what the report calls “inspired believers”–which shows how far-right beliefs have seeped into the mainstream.

Experts recommend the White House begin implementing community-based initiatives, like those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, to work with neighborhood organizations to combat disinformation and radicalism. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to establish a bipartisan commission to study the Capitol attack. Similar blue-ribbon probes of 9/11, the causes of urban uprisings in the 1960s, and other threats helped shape public opinion about the nation’s security and guide its responses. One goal of such a panel, advocates say, would be to create an accepted public record of U.S. extremist violence over the past decade. “We need to know what led the mob to the front gates in order to solve this problem,” says Jonathan Reiber, former head of strategic cybersecurity policy in the Defense Department and now chief strategist at cybersecurity firm AttackIQ. “If we do not take this moment to examine online extremism and what has happened to our country, then something worse will happen.”

All of this makes Biden’s 100-day timeline to assess the far-right threat and devise a plan to counter it seem ambitious. When asked whether the American public could expect a report, a list of recommendations or something else at the end of that period, the NSC declined to comment.

What’s clear is that the fight against domestic extremism will be a defining issue for a President who said he chose to run because of Charlottesville and whose Inauguration was overshadowed by the Capitol riot. Biden has promised to unite the country while delivering the “defeat” of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It’s not clear it’s possible to do both.

With reporting by Julia Zorthian

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com and W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com